Unusual days indeed at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, where several high-level administration officials have now taken fairly direct, surprisingly public aim at the President of the United States over his handling of the Charlottesville contretemps and its aftermath. Late last week, White House economic adviser Gary Cohn shocked Washington with his blunt criticism of the president's initial, vague, and equivocal statement on the hate rallies and deadly violence in Virginia. When it comes to "white supremacists, neo-Nazis, and the KKK," Cohn said, the Trump administration "must do better in consistently and unequivocally condemning these groups." His reference was not subtle. Days earlier, UN Ambassador Nikki Haley intimated that she wasn't pleased with the president's handling of the situation, telling reporters that she'd had a "personal conversation" with him on the matter, and that she'd "leave it at that." But perhaps most eye-opening was Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's assertion on Fox News Sunday that the president speaks only for himself, not on behalf of "American values:"
Rex Tillerson, asked by Chris Wallace if the President's speaks for American values on race, "The President speaks for himself." Whoa.— Brit Hume (@brithume) August 27, 2017
Upon seeing a number of similarly astonished tweets over this quote, I wondered if some in the media may have been eliding some important mitigating context around that specific sentence from Tillerson. Perhaps the Secretary of State had also defended his boss and pushed back against critics in his answer -- yet people were narrowly seizing upon the snippet in which he re-states a variation on the familiar Trumpworld formulation that Trump is ultimately his own senior-most spokesman. Watching Tillerson's full exchange on the issue with anchor Chris Wallace, however, makes clear that his statement was unquestionably pointed in nature. He avers that the State Department and the American government do stand up for the country's fundamental values, but deliberately and explicitly excludes the president from that analysis when pressed, to the obvious surprise of Wallace:
Hume's "whoa" was totally justified. This sort of jarring slap-down of the president by a cabinet secretary is, shall we say, highly irregular in Washington. Then again, so is a president publicly trolling and attacking his own Attorney General for weeks, then not firing him -- perhaps because other high-profile administration departures around that time made the optics inoperable (to say nothing of atypical warnings from Republicans in Congress). When people repeated the virtually-universal prediction that the Trump presidency would not be ordinary, I'm curious how many of them had a solid sense of the extent to which (and the speed with which) that statement would be repeatedly confirmed. Tillerson is no dummy, so he must have known that his response to that question would attract both media attention and Trump's wrath. So why toss chum in the water?
My educated guess is that he (a) feels a personal compulsion in his gut to separate himself from Trump on this controversy, and (b) senses that his tenure in the administration may be drawing to a close anyway, so he feels liberated to comment on current events without a pro-Trump filter. Do statements like this telegraph that "Rexit" will soon be upon us? Stay tuned. Meanwhile, now seems like as good a time as ever to revisit the theory that Trump thrives amid chaos, which is why his administration is strikingly, endlessly chaotic. Yuval Levin, a conservative intellectual and Bush White House alum, addresses this proposition in a lengthy post at National Review entitled, "A Government Ill-Executed." He writes that the Trump era might be described as mired in a "standing crisis," the source of which is "President Trump’s own disordered character:"
Chaos is the essence of that problem. It is that chaos, much more than any substantive views the president holds—some of which I agree with and some not, as I’m sure is the case for you. It is that chaos even more than his failure to quite grasp the role of the president in our system of government, or his petty malevolence, or his nasty inclination to punch downward, or whatever in the world the Russia madness is about. It is the simple inability to keep his attention focused, to be disciplined and ordered in a persistent way, to resist even the smallest provocations and insults, and to see decisions through, that has been undermining his administration. That sheer disorder has been paralyzing. It has played a part in Congress’s dysfunction, though to be fair the Congress has plenty of institutional problems of its own.
It has meant that Trump’s cabinet and sub-cabinet appointees, who have largely been quite good, have not been empowered to act effectively and have been hindered by the concern that anything they do on their own could be undermined by the president at any moment. It has also meant that there have not been enough of these appointees, since the process of staffing the government has been uneven and chaotic. And above all it has meant that the White House itself has just not been able to find a sustainable tempo and structure of activity and has found itself reeling unceasingly with barely time to breathe between one absurd, self-created crisis and another. If the president himself actually has substantive goals other than just being on everyone’s minds all the time, you would have to say he is largely failing to achieve them.
I think it's fair to argue that the Left's dialed-to-eleven hysteria, coupled with the media's breathless perpetuation the turmoil narrative, have contributed to the overall sense of upheaval. But Trump also continuously hands his opponents plenty of material to work with, undermining himself and his agenda on a near-daily basis (retaliating angrily against every real or perceived slight from members of his own nominal party further drains the reservoir of potential support). Which brings us to the question of how Trump might, or should, react to Tillerson's conspicuous put-down. A top adviser going rogue and intentionally undermining the president would normally be grounds for immediate dismissal on account of insubordination. But these are not normal times.
Has the parade of prominent firings and resignations boxed Trump in at all? It'd be one thing to replace your Secretary of State, or your top economic advisor, in a vacuum. But this summer has witnessed the exit of the White House Press Secretary, Chief of Staff, two Communications Directors, and a handful of senior advisers -- including a pair of Trump loyalists in recent days (plus the whole Sessions drama). Considering the bigger picture, when does heavy turnover look like a mass exodus? At what point does daily dysfunction translate into irreversible paralysis? And have those rubicons already been crossed? I'll leave you with this observation, which underscores the concern that the next three-plus years of American politics will be marked by wild careening from one polarizing, tribal signaling event to another:
Arpaio pardon typical Trump move. It will generate controversy, enflame opponents, rally his base -- yet it won't advance any policy goal.— Philip Klein (@philipaklein) August 26, 2017